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Thinking outside the box: Whirlpool dives in to digital

Aarthi Rayapura

Jason Mathew knows what you think when you hear the word Whirlpool: boxes. Boxes that spin water around to clean things. Boxes that get hot to cook food. Boxes that get cold to store food.

But as Senior Director of Global Connected Strategy at Whirlpool, he’s on a mission to change that. “A few years ago, we started to look at how to redefine the role of our company and what we could do for the consumer,” Mathew says. “In its 108-year history, Whirlpool has been disruptive in a lot of different dimensions. But ultimately, we’ve remained very stubborn in our pursuit of how we improve lives at home. We knew the consumer was increasingly moving online, and we wanted to win the consumer digital journey.”

Tip-toeing into the future

Transitioning from “box maker” to “happiness deliverer“ has taken time—and the results were not at all guaranteed at first. “This was a multi-year journey for us,” Mathew says. “And when we started, it wasn’t a slam dunk. There was a chance it wouldn’t work. But we just stayed focused. Everything’s been done in harmony, where software, hardware services, and subscription content all come together for the benefit of the user. We’ve learned that to succeed in this kind of transformation, you have to have the strategic courage to get started and the resilience to keep going.”

And as you might imagine for a company that’s been around as long as Whirlpool, they didn’t just rush headlong into their digital transformation. They were strategic and methodical, taking the time to study their customers, figure out their pain points, and laser focus on what role they could play in removing them. “I think a lot of industrial companies tend to lean on efficiency opportunities,” says Mathew. “But we wanted to focus more on consumer unlock. But even then It wasn’t a matter of ‘Let’s do a subscription‚—go!’ It was, ‘Let’s solve our customers’ problems and maybe a subscription will be one of the ways we do that.’”

Dinner’s ready

 Take dinner. There are a lot of pain points involved: you don’t know what you want to eat. You don’t know what your partner or kids want. You don’t know what’s in your fridge. You’re exhausted from a day full of meetings. It’s no wonder the food delivery business is booming. (Fun fact: Americans eat out—or eat takeout—between four and five times a week, on average).

If you do decide to power through and cook, Whirlpool’s role in the process is fairly limited: you turn their oven on and, well, that’s it. They wanted to do more. “Whirlpool is a typical manufacturing company, and we just didn’t have the skillset to help answer the question, ‘What’s for dinner?’” says Mathew. “So we made the commitment and started to build out a team that could bring our digital strategies to life and redefine the cooking experience to address those common, everyday questions. What we quickly realized is it made sense to make acquisitions to help fill in the gaps.”

Acquiring expertise

The first M&A was Yummly in 2017. With more than 27 million registered users, Yummly is one of the world’s largest digital recipe platforms. This acquisition allowed Whirlpool to focus on manufacturing products to seamlessly integrate with the service and deliver on their promise of the connected, frictionless kitchen: the Tesla for cooking, in Mathew’s vision. “There was no way we were going to be able to do this on our own,” says Mathew. “And frankly, our brands didn’t always give us permission to step into the spaces that we wanted to go into.”

Today, Whirlpool isn’t just selling an oven; they’re selling a gourmet, end-to-end cooking experience. Their smart ovens integrate with Yummly to help people find recipes, organize grocery shopping, streamline meal preparation, and then automatically sync up all the temperature settings and cooking times. For example, their Scan-to-Cook feature lets you scan a UPC code on a frozen pizza, and then watch as the magic starts to unfold. Your oven will preheat to the correct temperature on its own, let you know when to put the pizza in, and then send you an alert on your smartphone when it’s ready.

And in the past year, they’ve created Yummly Pro, a premium subscription service that gives subscribers hands-on, immersive training from renowned professional chefs.

Wash this

Okay, so not everyone dreads cooking. Some people actually love it. So once things were rolling with their smart ovens and Yummly, Mathew set his sights on one of life’s most dreaded chores: laundry. (It never, ever stops, right?). So they created a smart washing machine that has a big “tank” to hold enough detergent for up to 90 loads. The washing machine keeps track of how many cycles you’ve run and then automatically replenishes your detergent through Amazon when you’re close to running out. The launch was the biggest in Whirlpool’s history of connected products.

But thrilled as the company was about their revolutionary machine, Mathew could see another, less intuitive opportunity—making what goes into the machine: the detergent. Here’s why: laundry detergent is a $7 billion a year industry. (Yes, you read that right: billion with a b). So they worked with chemists and formulators to create their own line of concentrated detergents, Swash, designed specifically for their washing machines to produce better results.

This move helps Whirlpool stay connected to their customers throughout their journey with Whirlpool products. That means when they’re finally ready to replace an appliance, they’ll have thought of Whirlpool in the last couple of weeks, not 10 years ago. “By going into detergent, we’re now capturing the larger share of the cleaning ecosystem,” he says. “The overall objective is to have roughly 25% of our connected users being paid users to our subscription replenishment program in the next few years. This puts us in a position to help consumers do less and get more, while providing our company a higher share of wallet around that experience, whether you buy our brand of machine or not.”

And while the extra revenue is great, the strategy goes well beyond the bottom line. “We’re no longer talking about just selling boxes,” says Mathew. “We’re finally talking about selling services and subscriptions, and our strategy gives us an opportunity to learn what it’s like to offer a subscription, to acquire consumers, to retain consumers, to figure out the pricing model.

“I believe this will be a pivot point in the history of our company,” he concludes. “It brought us to a new horizon and increased the opportunity for us to broaden the impact we can make on our customers. It’s an exciting time to be at Whirlpool, and this transformation will help us achieve our simple objective: making the act of cooking and cleaning easier, better, and faster.”

The overall objective is to have roughly 25% of our connected users being paid users to our subscription replenishment program in the next few years.

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